Indonesia: Scared of the truth in Papua

Thursday, February 14, 2008 - 11:00

The following is abridged from a January 18 article by Richard Samuelson, the co-director of Britain's Free West Papua Campaign ().

It may not look very scary to you or me, but to the government of Indonesia it is a dangerous threat to the "unity of the nation". No, it's not an assault rifle or a pound of high explosives, or even a bow and some arrows. It is a bag.

Yesterday in Jayapura, West Papua, two women — Yohana Pekei and Nelly Pigome — were interrogated by Indonesian police and intelligence agents because they make bags and sell them for a few pence to help support their families.

What could possibly be so dangerous about a bag sold by the roadside by two West Papuan women?

If I told you that the bag has a star woven into its design, maybe you can now understand why the Indonesian state is so terrified of this particular bag?

Still confused? Well, the star is the "Morning Star", symbol of 45 years of dreams of West Papuan independence from Indonesia. When a state doesn't enjoy the support of the entire population of a territory it claims as its own, it cannot dare to allow even the smallest sign of disagreement.

So Indonesia, with all its pomp, majesty and immense military power, is now scared of a bag. Ten years after the fall of the dictator Suharto, an event that was supposed to herald a new era of openness and democracy, Indonesia is now plumbing new depths in a last desperate attempt to keep its grasp on West Papua.

According to the January 11 edition of the daily Cenderawasih Post, Barnabas Suebu, Indonesia's colonial governor in West Papua, ordered the police to enforce a new law making it a criminal offence to "display, sell or use ... any flag or logo used by separatist movements". Yohana and Nelly's bag is now an illegal bag.

In 2004, two West Papuan independence activists, Filep Karma and Yusak Pakage, were jailed for 15 and 10 years respectively for peacefully raising the Morning Star flag. Now it's Yohana and Nelly's turn to be made into criminals, for making and selling a bag.

And Indonesia is not only scared of Papuan bags. It's scared of Papuan books too. In December, Indonesian state prosecutors seized 60 copies of a book by Papuan academic Sendius Wonda, entitled The Sinking of the Melanesian Race: The Political Struggle in West Papua.

"The book is deemed misleading, can spark unrest and divide the Papuan community", Rudi Hartono, the chief of Indonesian intelligence in West Papua, was quoted as saying in the December 15 Jakarta Post. "We will continue raiding bookstores in other places [searching] for the book."

And here is why Yohana's and Nelly's bags and Sendius Wonda's book are so scary to the Indonesian government: they tell the truth — the inconvenient but undeniable truth that the vast majority of West Papuans want independence from Indonesia.

In February 2007, the Post quoted a senior Indonesian political science academic, Muridan S. Widjojo, from the Centre for Political Studies at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences — who unlike foreign academics or journalists is given free access to West Papua by the Indonesian military. He admitted with remarkable candour: "However, we have to realize that deep inside, almost every Papuan wants to be free from Indonesia."

And how can you doubt the aforementioned Indonesian governor himself, Barnabas Suebu, speaking in 2000, before his current period in power?

The same man who declared Yohana's and Nelly's bag illegal was interviewed by Tempo magazine during the "Papuan Spring", the brief and wonderful period of openness that followed the collapse of the Suharto dictatorship, an era cruelly closed with the November 2001 assassination of West Papuan independence leader Theys Eluay by Indonesian Special Forces.

Suebu was asked, "In your view, will the people of Irian Jaya [West Papua] vote for independence or autonomy if a referendum is held?" He replied: "Based on my observations in Jayapura, I predict there will be a greater preference for independence. So, this is a serious matter. I hope no one will say again that this is the wish of a trivial few. They do not accept autonomy ... They only want independence ...

"The people of Papua insist on independence but Jakarta rejects it ... the people are craving for independence."

A Papuan bag and a Papuan book. Indonesia is indeed very scared — of the truth.

From GLW issue 740

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